Just in time to prepare us for the Great War centenary “The Yanks Are Coming: A military history of the United States in World War I” by one of my all-time favorite authors, H. W. Crocker III.
Crocker is a wickedly supple storyteller, whose books include “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War” and “Robert E. Lee on Leadership: Executive Lessons in Character, Courage, and Vision” and “Don’t Tread on Me: A 400-Year history of America at war, from Indian fighting to terrorist hunting.”
A full basket of stories and lessons learned and lessons ignored, Crocker’s book thrills the reader in two big ways.
The first, is that Crocker exposes the lie that President T. Woodrow Wilson was in any way, shape or form a brilliant diplomat or actor on the world stage. He was an arrogant, self-satisfied fool, whose bumbling and hollow bluster stumbled us into the First World War. At the end of the war, those same qualities led Wilson to set the table for the Second World War.
In a tragic foreshadow of President Barack Obama’s handling of Iraq, Wilson campaigned for reelection in 1916 with the slogan: “He Kept Us Out of War,” only to lead America into World War I less than two months after he was sworn in for his second term.c
Any time somebody suggests that American needs to be more Wilsonian, slap them upside the head until they come of their stupor.
Before the Great War, Kaiser Wilhelm II said that all Germany required was its rightful place in the sun. But, step-by-step the kaiser went about this goal by disrupting everyone’s place in the sun. As England and France struggled to manage their Muslim subjects, the Kaiser encouraged Muslim nationalism. As Russia gazed longingly at Instanbul, ne Constantinople, the kaiser bolstered the Ottoman sultan and made plans for a Berlin to Baghdad rail line. On the other side, when Austria-Hungary needed to restrained, the Kaiser egged it on as it laid the wood to Serbia.
Famously, the war ended 96 years ago when Germany surrounded to Wilson’s 14 Points, which promised Germany a seat at the table of nations, just not at the head of the table—not a bad climb down from a place in the sun.
At the actual treaty conference at Versailles, France and England were not as generous.
Nor was the new order established in Versailles as successful as its predecessor, the Congress of Vienna.
For 99 years after Waterloo, European nations avoided major wars through the wisdom of the Congress of Vienna, the system established by conservative statesmen, Lord Castlereagh, the Duke of Wellington and Prince Metternich.
The triumvirate of Versailles was a triangle of left-wing men: Lloyd George, the founder of the British nanny state; Georges Clemenceau, the anti-clerical radical before the war and renouncer of French war debt to America after the war, and Wilson.
These three arrogant progressives built a world order that lasted just long enough for the boys born the year the treaties ending the First World War were signed to reach draft age to fight the Second World War.
It is a function of time passing that events, people and ideas conflate.
Tragically, the progressive naturals of Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt have conflated, especially in the minds of today’s conservatives. The two men were not comrades, nor friends.
Crocker chose his narrative over detours into this fallacy. But, he did think it was worth pointing out that while Wilson let the German U-Boat campaign against neutral American shipping fester. Roosevelt said he would have sent Navy warships to escort Lusitania before the Germans sent that ship and 128 Americans to the bottom in 20 minutes.
Roosevelt’s cousin Franklin may have told people he was a Wilsonian, but faced with a new German U-Boat campaign in 1940, he ordered Coast Guard cutters to escort “neutral” American shipping.
The basic difference between Wilson and T.R. is that Wilson distrusted Americans and American ideals and Roosevelt had no such qualms.
The second thrill Crocker brings is his crystal ball.
In his section “Young Lions,” he discusses the role men, such as George G. Marshall, Harry S. Truman, and William J. Donovan and George S. Patton Jr., all who played in the First World War as prelude to their even greater roles in World War II.
Patton was one of the young aides patronized by Gen John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, the commanding general of American Expeditionary Forces, and so was the star-crossed William “Billy” Mitchell. Mitchell was Pershing’s air combat commander.
In the post war period, Mitchell is the American military’s Cassandra, condemned by the gods to see the future and further cursed that no one believed him. Mitchell was essentially court-martialed for pointing out that planes can sink ships, but if you are going to have ships, have aircraft carriers, not battleships.
As Crocker tells us, though, the great air strategist did not see his conviction coming. Rather then accept the court’s five-year suspension without pay, Mitchell put in his retirement letter and retired to his horse farm in 1926. A well-born horseman, like Patton, the French-born son of a Wisconsin senator did not live to see his vindication. Ten years later he was dead at 56.
There are also visits with Matthew B. Ridgeway, Thomas E. Dewey, the man who would not be elected president in 1944 and 1948 and washed up First Lord of the Admiralty, never to be heard of again: Winston Churchill, who pops up throughout the book.
“The Yanks Are Coming” is great read. It is full of stories you thought you knew and stories you did not know you did not know. Enjoy.